In conversation with Rohan Bilimoria: A lawyer inspiring thousands of students across the globe

Mr. Rohan Bilimoria, the founder of Law Ninjas, former in-house counsel for KFC Asia and Pizza Hut Asia Pacific, and former attorney for Magic Circle law firm Linklaters and US law firm Mayer Brown.  He is one of the world’s leading coaches for lawyers and law students. He completed his Bachelor of Commerce (Finance) and Bachelor of Laws degrees from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

He has been interviewed by EBC/SCC Online Student Ambassador Stuti Dwivedy, who is currently pursuing law from NLUJAA.

1.Please introduce yourself to our readers?

Hi everyone, my name is Rohan Bilimoria. I was born in New Delhi and moved to Sydney with my family when I was 14 years old. After completing Finance and Law degrees from the University of New South Wales, my first graduate position was with the Magic Circle law firm Linklaters in London, followed by stints in their Moscow, Tokyo and Singapore offices. After Linklaters, I moved to the US law firm Mayer Brown to help set up their Asian Project Finance practice. After Mayer Brown, I moved into my first in-house legal role at a company called Yum! Brands which owns the brands KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. I was helping with legal matters for KFC in Asia and Pizza Hut in the Asia Pacific region. In November 2020, I moved back to Australia to be closer to my family and friends, and am currently a senior legal counsel at a Big 4 Bank in Sydney.

In addition, I run a global platform for lawyers and law students called Law Ninjas. We were founded in 2017 and are currently conducting free workshops and speaking at universities around the world.  It has been an incredibly challenging time for everyone over the past 12 months, and I thought that there was a real need for students to receive guidance on how to write a CV, how to write a cover letter, how to ace their legal interview, and other soft skills that students don’t really learn at law school, but they do need in order to be a successful lawyer. We recently launched our website (lawninjas.co) and are incredibly excited about the future.

 

2.First of all, congratulations on the global launch of your website Sir.  Secondly, since you have mentioned that you were a lawyer at Linklaters and Mayer Brown, what made you shift your career trajectory towards an in-house legal counsel role for KFC Asia and Pizza Hut Asia Pacific?

 

I always wanted to be an in-house lawyer. My Dad Purvez Bilimoria was an in-house lawyer for Nestle and PepsiCo for the majority of his career. I used to see him and his colleagues, and I thought that what they did was really interesting because it was closer to the business and the commercial decision-making that was going on behind the scenes. I wanted to move in-house straightaway at the beginning of my career, but every time I would apply for an in-house role when I was at Linklaters or Mayer Brown, people would say to me that one needs to have at least five to six years’ experience at a law firm before moving in-house as they will then have more experience and better training. After a few attempts, this opportunity at Yum! Brands materialised, and I grabbed it with both hands.  When you’re at a law firm, you tend to become a specialist at one thing, whether it’s corporate law, tax law, banking law and you are only involved in a certain part of an overall transaction. However I wanted to dive a little deeper and see why that transaction even originated in the first place and what happened after that transaction was finalised, and you can only see that when you’re in an in-house role.

3. Sir, since you have shifted your roles, would you like to throw some light upon the differences in the role of an associate at a law firm and an in-house counsel in terms of the workload, authority and responsibility?

As I mentioned, when you’re working at a law firm, you tend to become a specialist in a particular area of law. However, in an in-house role, you’re expected to be a Jack or Jill of all trades who is meant to know at least a little bit about everything. At a law firm, your clients are external stakeholders who hire you, pay you lots of money and expect you to do deals for them, whereas in an in-house role, your clients are your internal stakeholders, such as your finance, marketing and operations teams, so it’s a very different dynamic. The other thing is that, at a law firm, you’re the fee earner and the one who’s bringing in the cash for the firm, whilst the marketing, HR and IT teams are regarded as support functions or cost centres for the firm. However, when you move in-house, the legal team is a cost centre. You’re no longer the one bringing in the revenue and the sales. It’s the marketing, business development and sales teams who are bringing in the money. That takes a little bit of time getting used to.

A number of students say to me that, “Oh, it must be much easier working in an in-house role”. Many people tend to believe that an in-house lawyer has better hours and work-life balance when compared to a private practice lawyer. However it must be said that in-house lawyers work very hard as well. The key distinction between the two is that, in an in-house role, you tend to have more autonomy and more control over your hours. You can work from 9am to 6pm every day as you would, and then you can go home, put your kids to bed, maybe have dinner, and then you can log in again if needed. However, in a law firm environment, it’s a little more intense, because you’re judged on the basis of how many billable hours you can clock up in a month and in the year, and then your bonuses depend on that. For any lawyer who’s looking to build a strong in-house career, I believe that it is important to serve at least a couple of years at a law firm, so that you get solid grounding, training and know-how. You’ll then be better equipped when you move in-house.

4. You have on multiple occasions and on many platforms guided students with their statement of purpose and the CV drafting. My request to you would be to please share handful of tips for our readers regarding the same.

 

I think the two most important documents for any job application are your CV and cover letter.

Your CV should be a maximum of two pages at this stage of your career, and it should hit key issues. For example, your personal details like your name, your contact number and phone number. You should then have a section about your education, setting out what degrees you’ve done and what grades you’ve achieved, and then go back in time covering all the other courses you’ve done. The next section is your work experience, where you should set out who you’ve worked for,  how long for, along with at least a couple of lines giving the reader a flavour on what you did during that work experience. And then again, go back in time, listing out everything you can in terms of work experience. The next section is your achievements, your extracurricular and co-curricular activities – namely, anything outside of work and study. This is where you set out any kind of medals you’ve won, any kind of volunteering, charity work, mooting and debating you’ve done. The last two sections, and these are the two sections that people don’t pay enough attention to when they’re drafting their CV, but I think they’re very important when somebody is reading your CV, are your hobbies and interests and your references. I think it’s very important to tell people what you’re interested in outside of working and studying. Nobody wants to hire a robot. If you’re into music, travelling, sport or food, put that down and don’t hide who you are as a person. In the final section on your references, I would recommend using the magic phrase “Available on request” rather than setting out specific referees straightaway, because it gives you a bit of flexibility and gives you a bit of time. When somebody receives your CV, nobody’s going to pick up the phone straightaway and call your referee. They’re probably going to want to speak to you first, they’re going to want to hear your side of the story and what you do. And if they like you, then as a second step, or even sometimes as a final step, they’ll reach out to your references. In that time that you have, you can figure out who you want to put forward as your referee. Also, it gives you flexibility, because then you can have maybe three or four referees in your mind, and pick two out of those four for a particular job application.

The next document is your cover letter. This should be a maximum of one page, and where you tell the reader your story, who you are, why you’re applying to this particular job, and why. Tell the reader how you think you can add value to their team. This is where you show that you’ve done the research into not only the company, but also the industry, what challenges they’re facing, and what trends they’re seeing. Use sources such as LinkedIn and Google to research who is in the team, what awards they’ve won and what deals they’ve done. This research, enthusiasm and passion is what’s going to set you apart from someone else.

5. In order to apply for higher studies, we all know how pertinent it is to have an ideal statement of purpose. In your opinion, what is the right time for SOP drafting? What are the major mistakes that the students should avoid?

Your SOP, just like your cover letter, has to tell your story. In terms of timing, you should try and draft it as early as possible. Don’t leave it to the last minute. In the free Law Ninjas workshops that we run every Thursday, we’ve had sessions with students who have been to universities around the world including Oxford University, Harvard University and National University of Singapore, so I would recommend watching those workshop videos on the Law Ninjas website (lawninjas.co).  An SOP needs to tell the university why they should pick you out of all the other thousands of applicants. Put as much preparation and research into it, and definitely don’t churn out the same SOP for every single thing that you apply for. You have to customise it, and you have to make it your own. The people who are reading your SOP or cover letter have seen thousands of them. They are going to know when you’re churning out the same document for every position you apply for.  I’ve read cover letters of law students and lawyers and I can tell when somebody has just taken the same letter and applied to different companies or universities, and they’ve just changed maybe a couple of small details. Don’t do that. Put some time, effort and research into it. And that’s what’s going to really set you apart from everybody else.

6.Can you give a set of general do’s and dont’s to the law students? What are the common mistakes that students make in law school? And how should one avoid those?

 

I don’t know if there are any specific mistakes that I would want to point to, but I think that in your first and second year, try and focus on absorbing and learning as much as you can, not only about the law, but also about what it’s like to be at a university, what it’s like to study with people from different backgrounds. Explore courses at your university, get to know your lecturers, attend webinars, attend workshops and go to conferences. Adopt a growth mindset. Challenge yourself, think outside the box, say yes to things, take on new challenges, and really push yourself because if you don’t push yourself, then you’ll always look back on your time, and think that you could have done a bit more. Just live life without any regrets or fear. Some students tend to focus a little bit too much on studying and forget about the social and other aspects of university life. Don’t do that. I think the key word here is balance. Strike a nice balance between work, studying, socialising, sport, music, whatever else you’re interested in, and also family, I think that’s very important. Don’t let that all of that go by the wayside and just focus on your studies. Strike a balance.

 

7. Now I want to ask you that, back in 2017, you founded Law Ninjas. What was your vision behind it? And why did you think that we need a platform like this?

 

When I moved to Yum! Brands in 2017, it was my first in-house role and I had no idea what to expect or what to do. So I set up a small WhatsApp group called Law Ninjas. And it had 10 to 15 in-house lawyers that I knew through my network. The initial idea was for me to get to know people and for me to ask silly questions about topics such as data privacy, employment and tax, all of which I never had to worry about too much during my time as a private practice lawyer. Ever since then, the idea just caught on and lawyers liked sharing knowhow and networking with each other. Lawyers would share a job opportunity in the group and someone else in the group would get the job, so it was really helpful for a number of the Law Ninjas. And it’s now grown into something which I never even expected. There are now thousands of law students and lawyers around the world in the Law Ninjas community. I think the key thing, and this has always been my passion, is that I want to be able to give back to the legal community. There are students from extremely well to-do families in developed economies, as well as kids from law schools in developing economies. I want to be able to level the playing field, so that  everyone has the same access to the same workshops, same knowhow and same soft skills training that I can provide. And then all these amazing Law Ninjas around the world are volunteering to speak at these weekly workshops to share their know-how and their knowledge, and it’s been going really well. And now that our website has been globally launched, it has all the recordings of the webinars and has tonnes of other great features which law students and lawyers around the world can access for a nominal monthly fee. 10% of any profits from the website will go towards funding scholarships for deserving law students across the globe.

 

8.What is your vision for Law Ninjas and where do you expect to see yourself in the next five years?

 

My vision for Law Ninjas is for every single law student and lawyer in the world to know about us. Although it sounds pretty bold and farfetched, I think it’s possible and we’re already getting there one day at a time. It’s not meant to be a big profit-making enterprise, like a number of other legal education providers out there. I want to do my best to make sure that everybody around the world has access to information. It’s not just for the privileged few out there.

In terms of where I see Law Ninjas in five years, I’m open to any ideas that your readers have! In terms of where I see myself in five years, to be honest I don’t even know where I’m going to be five days from now, let alone five years from now. Since I’ve just moved back to Sydney in November last year, I think I’ll probably still be in Sydney because my family is here. I have travelled a lot, and I’ve been away from Sydney for 12 years, so it’s nice to be back with my friends and family.

 

9. Do you have any parting message for our readers?

I think that if I could give one piece of advice to anyone who’s reading this, I would say that, there are four ways that people can lead their lives and careers. This is something I learnt at Yum! Brands. You can lead with heart, you can always be truthful, honest, reliable, and be yourself. The second way you can do it is with humility. Don’t be egotistical. Just be nice. Stick to who you are, but in a much more friendly, much more respectful, much more polite way and be more of a team player. Unfortunately, I think everyone’s default setting is that we don’t lead with heart and humility in the beginning, but rather we lead with pride and fear. In terms of pride – we all have egos, we’re all overachievers, we all aimed for good grades at law school, we all became lawyers, we all want to make lots of money and change the world. And we’re always competitive and striving and trying to do better.  In terms of fear – a lot of us are afraid, and  don’t do things and don’t take chances because of fear. I would say that, rather than coming from a place of pride and fear, the faster we can move to leading with heart and humility, the better off we will be as people and as professionals, and that will translate really well for us in the long term.

Lead with love, heart and humility, and reduce the level of pride and fear within you. And if you do that, everything else in your life will sort itself out.

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